If the anthology structure of Wild Tales doesn’t really work for it, it doesn’t quite work against it either. The six stories which make up Argentinian writer-director Damián Szifron’s third feature don’t link together in any particular way, which allows them to be snappy and funny without burdening the audience with the need to find the moral of the stories. But when the film’s mordant humour dips in its energy, the film staggers to a stand-still. It’s no real surprise that Wild Tales comes bearing the endorsement of Pedro Almodóvar; an appropriate alternate title might even be People on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Wild Tales is a black comedy through and through, with all of its segments finding people who have been backed into a corner in some way and are desperate to find a way out. It starts small but shocking: the passengers on a plane slowly become aware that their presence there is no accident, soon realising that their free tickets were no prize. It’s a startling and hilarious way to open a film, and it effectively sets the tone.
The next, meatier segment finds a waitress at a remote diner having to serve an evil man from her past. This is one of the two segments which don’t really hit the mark, the other being the second to last, in which an obscenely wealthy couple clamour to find a scapegoat for their son’s accidental hit-and-run. Szifron has a solid visual sense, toying with colour and lighting in each story, from the buzzing fluorescence of the diner to the drab greys and browns of the hit-and-run story. But neither really connects in the same way the others tend to. They’re amusing, but also don’t feel quite like part of the whole.
And while the best of the six tales are wonderful, when the film is taken as a whole their brilliance can’t quite compensate for the way the lesser stories hamper Wild Tales’ consistent pace. The most impressive story, concerning a road rage incident on a remote highway which goes impossibly awry, cuts to the marrow of human indecency, the way petty squabbles and asshole behaviour can turn people into pure villains. Another, in which a bride finds out at her wedding that her new husband been cheating on her and invited the mistress to their reception, plays out like a particularly toxic episode of Bridezillas, complete with an utterly brilliant sight gag.
They’re all essentially narrative sketches, but Szifron adeptly squeezes characterisation and pathos into them. There’s one other which just doesn’t quite get there, as a man finds his car towed as he picks up his daughter’s birthday cake, leading him down the byzantine path of bureaucracy to retrieve it until he can no longer handle it. As with most of the other stories, this one runs along lines of class, showing the way systemic social differences lead to conflict, mostly along class lines (the wedding tale is a spin on gender, though not a terribly political one).
If anything, these stories fall under the loose umbrella of revenge, which places Wild Tales in exceedingly broad thematic territory. So while it’s often uproariously funny and other times sharply amusing, beyond that it doesn’t leave a huge imprint on the viewer in a way that a more cohesive or interwoven collection of short films may have. But given how uncommon bold, cinematic comedies are these days, Szifron has proven himself to be a director to watch.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.